Do you get the feeling, as I do, that baseball has fallen into the clutches of the literati? This is the time of year, for example, when we may expect the usual spate of tone poems on the sense of renewal that baseball and its bedfellow, spring, bring to the wintry souls of men; on the gorgeous symmetry of the diamond; on baseball's freedom from the tyranny of the clock; on its Gothic cathedral, Fenway Park; and on and on. Baseball has enough dugout poets to populate an All-Star team. Last fall just before Boston's, may we say, tragic World Series, the Globe gathered in one bulging section of the paper the flower of New England letters, aesthetes, ranging in stature from the revered John Updike to the former president of Yale University, who is current president of the National League, and let them take their best cuts. The result, I fear, was a well-intentioned exercise in wretched excess.
Writers who otherwise assume a properly cynical posture toward humankind tend to collapse to their knees in tears when composing love songs to baseball. We can only thank providence that Mrs. Browning never made it out to the ballpark. The game's great heroes, ordinary stiffs most of them, suffer, I think, from all this romanticizing. I forget which was more significant to the culture of New England, Thoreau's move to Walden Pond or Ted Williams's last at bat. And pity poor Joe DiMaggio. This earthy man, whom I once overheard discoursing hilariously in a San Francisco bar on the Duke of Edinburgh's prospects for stepping out on the Queen, is now so filmy a figure as to be almost pure myth. A few years ago, even Simon and Garfunkel, whom some dare call poets, got to him. No wonder the old Clipper doesn't dare open his mouth in public. What if he should sound human and say something stupid?
No, I think the poets, in their zeal to make of baseball something more than a game, have missed the point. What is exceptional about baseball is its ordinariness. Baseball is just sort of around. Consider that, from now on until well into the fall, a ball game will be going on somewhere every day. For all of its super stadiums and sophisticated self-promotion, baseball remains essentially a game you can just drop in on. It's a little like visiting an old friend. It doesn't require an awful lot of planning to go to a ball game. You don't even have to come in at the beginning or stay around to the end. A few innings will give you the flavor of the affair.
A ball game is one of the few experiences left to us that doesn't qualify as a "major sporting event." That's good, because Americans don't seem able to behave themselves at major sporting events. Pro football games are such events, and look at the bozos who show up at those. In fairness, this indictment shouldn't be confined to Americans, considering the mayhem regularly perpetrated in the name of national pride at soccer matches around the globe. You put 50,000 people in a stadium anywhere nowadays and you'd better call out the cavalry.
I know an odd thing has happened to me lately: I don't like crowds. I can't stand the mindless hordes who have transformed our stadiums into beachheads. It seems that if the poets don't get you, the louts will. What I like least about baseball is its ultimate major event, the World Series. Most of the people who go to the World Series aren't real baseball fans, anyway. There are too many VIPs, too many politicians, too many dilettantes on the premises. During the World Series, baseball is too much like football.
It's getting so you can't tell the Series and the Super Bowl apart. Both suffer grievously from overhyping and overexposure. The Series once provided a tidy end to the season, neatly matching the league winners. Now it takes another week or more before the league champions are even determined. True fans are exhausted by all these preliminary bouts preceding the main event. Maybe the players are, too. But none of this slows down the hype machine.
Just give me a little Wednesday afternoon ball game, find me a seat in the sunshine with enough room to stretch out, hand me a hot dog and a beer, let me be, and watch the misanthropy drain out. Oh, I'm not saying nobody else should be there with me. The owners need crowds of some size, after all, to keep the thing going, and the players like somebody rooting for them. So I'll generously put up with 15,000 or 20,000 like-minded souls who are as unaware as I of the possibilities around them for an outpouring of lyricism; who don't regard themselves as blossoming roses restored to life by the experience; and who, though they would prefer the home team to win, would not demolish the building in an ulcerous rage if it should not. Together we'll enjoy that most elemental of pleasures: a day at the old ball yard. Leave us there, oh please, in peace.